Beowulf Translations

So, this is fun.  I took two semesters of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; the difference is whether it’s spoken in England or on the Continent, roughly), and in the second one we got to do a comparative translations project, analyzing multiple translations in light of our own.

Oh, maybe you’re reading this and wondering why we have to translate English?  Basically, the Modern English that you and Shakespeare speak is what happened to the Middle English that developed when the French-speaking Vikings (the Normans) eventually decided their children should learn the language of the people they had been ruling since 1066.  Yes, English had pretty much ceased to be a written language for a century and a half or so when French-speaking folk started to speak English with their English-speaking subjects, and the result by the time Chaucer wrote (middle 13th Century) was what we call Middle English:  English mechanical words, basic syntax, and verb forms, but about half the vocabulary straight from the French.

Anyway, to help you out, here’s the original at RPO with interlinear translation.

And here’s my direct translation, followed by my poetic translation and the same passage from several other translations.  At some point in the future, I’ll put up the notes I had comparing these, too.

2152            [He] commanded then that the boar’s-head-sigil be carried in,
2153            the helm towering in battle, the gray byrnie,
2154            the splendid war-sword, following the speech [he] uttered:
2155            “Hrothgar gave me this battle-suit,
2156            the wise king; by a particular word [he] commanded
2157            that I tell you first about his gift;
2158            [he] says that king Heorogar had it,
2159            man of the Scyldings, a long time;
2160            yet to his son [he] would not give–
2161            to bold Heoroward, though he was loyal to him–
2162            the chest-piece. Use it all well!”
2163            I have heard that with those adornments four horses,
2164            swift [and] similar, followed closely,
2165            apple-dark ones. He bestowed his gifts,
2166            horses and treasures–thus should a kinsman give,
2167            not at all weave a deceit-net for another,
2168            by hidden strength to prepare death
2169            for a close companion. To Hygelac was
2170            [his] nephew very loyal, [loyal] to the one hard in battle;
2171            and either [was] mindful of the other’s good.
2172            I have heard that he gave Hygd that neck-ring,
2173            splendid wonder-jewel, that Wealhtheow gave him,
2174            the prince’s daughter, along with three horses
2175            graceful and bright-saddled. Ever after [ ],
2176 (75)      following the ring-giving, [her] breast was adorned.
2177            Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed himself brave,
2178            a man familiar with battle [and] with good deeds,
2179            [a man who] worked for glory, not at all [a] drunken [one who] slew
2180            hearth-companions; his heart was not savage,
2181            but the greatest strength among mankind,
2182            the liberal gift that God gave him,
2183            the battle-brave one contained. Long was [he] lowly,
2184            as the sons of the Geats deemed him no good;
2186 (85)      the lord of the Weders [had] not wished to make
2185            him a greatly esteemed one at the mead bench;
2187            Mostly, [they] thought that [Beowulf] was sluggish,
2188            a feeble prince. Change had come
2189            to the glorious man from each of [his] afflictions.

Epps (accentual verse)

He called then to bear in the boar-headed sigil
with the helm tall in battle, the mail-shirt of gray,
and the war-sword most splendid, as he said the word:
“It was Hrothgar who gave me this warfaring outfit;
the wise king gave orders that I say these words,
to tell you about what he gives you today:
He says that the king had it, Heorogar,
that man of the Scyldings, a very long while;
and despite all he would not give to his own son—
to bold Heoroward, be he never so true
—even the chest piece. Enjoy it all well!”
And then I have heard, with those beauties, four horses
All swift and well-matched, filled the floor of the hall,
four apple-dark roans. He gave all his gifts,
the horses and treasures—so all kinsmen should give,
not at all to weave snares of deceit for another
by practice in secret, devising the death
of a close-knit companion. To Hygelac was
his nephew most loyal, to the one hard in battle,
and either was mindful of each other’s good.
And then I have heard that he gave Hygd the neck-ring,
that grand gem of wonders Wealhtheow gave him,
the prince’s own daughter, along with three horses,
bright-saddled and graceful. And from that day forward,
Because of that ring-gift, her breast was adorned.
Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed that he was a brave one,
Familiar with battle and also good deeds,
one who worked for his glory, no drunkard who slew
the friends of his hearth; no, his heart was not savage [. . .]

Mary E. Waterhouse

He bade them bring the boar-wrought banner in,
The helm that towers in fight, the corselet gray
And splendid battle blade, then made this speech:
This battle-garment Hrothgar, the wise prince,
Gave me; and in particular he bade
That first I tell thee of its history.
He said Heorogar, the king and chief
Of the Scyldings, long possessed it; none the less
He did not wish to give the coat of mail
Unto his son, the valiant Heoroward,
Dear though he was to him. Enjoy it all well!”
I heard that four swift horses followed close
Upon the war equipment, dapple gray
And all alike; he did his liege lord honour
With steeds and gifts. So should a kinsman do,
Not spread a net of malice for his kindred
With secret guile, nor set the snare of death
For his companions. To Hygelac, the brave
In battle, was his nephew very dear
And each was mindful of the other’s good.
I heard that he bestowed on Hygd the necklace,
The rare, wrought ornament which Wealhtheow,
The prince’s daughter, gave him, with three steeds,
Graceful and gaily saddled; ever after
That jewel-giving was her breast adorned.
Thus did the son of Ecgtheow prove his worth,
The man renowned for battles and high deeds
Strove after fame; nor slew his hearth-companions
In their cups; his spirit was not fierce
Though he, valiant in fight, the greatest strength
Of all mankind possessed, the generous gift
God granted him. He had been long despised,
For Wedermen did not account him brave,
Nor would the ruler of the Geats regard him
As worthy of much honour on the mead-bench;
They rather deemed the prince was indolent
And full of sloth. Compensation came
To the illustrious man for every trial.


He ordered brought in      the boar’s-head standard,
high-crowned helmet,      great iron shirt,
ornamented war-sword,      then said this speech:
“All this battle-gear      Hrothgar gave me,
wise and generous;      he asked especially
that I first tell you      the history of his gift.
He said King Heorogar,      the Scylding’s leader,
had owned it long.      No sooner for that
did he make it a gift      to brave Heoroward,
the iron chest-guard      for his own son,
loyal though he was.      Enjoy it all well!”
Then, as I’ve heard,      four swift horses,
exactly matching,      followed that treasure,
apple-dark steeds.      With good heart he gave
both treasure and horses.      So ought a kinsman
always act,      never weave nets
of evil in secret,      prepare the death
of close companions.      With war-bold Hygelac
his nephew kept faith,      his man ever loyal,
and each always worked      for the other’s welfare.
I also have heard      that he gave Queen Hygd
the golden necklace,      that Wealhtheow gave him,
wondrous treasure-ring,      and three sleek horses
under golden saddles.      After that gift-giving
the shining necklace      adorned her breast.
Thus Ecgtheow’s son      had shown great courage,
famous in battles,      renowned for good deeds,
walked in glory;      by no means killed
comrades in drink;      had no savage mind:
brave and battle-ready,      he guarded the gift
that God had given him,      the greatest strength
that man ever had.      Yet his youth had been miserable,
when he long seemed sluggish      to the Geatish court;
they thought him no good;      he got little honor,
no gifts on the mead-bench      from the lord of the Weders.
They all were convinced      he was slow, or lazy,
a coward of a noble.      A change came to him,
shining in victory,      worth all those cares.

Charles W. Kennedy

Then he bade men bring the boar-crested headpiece,
The towering helmet, and steel-gray sark,
The splendid war-sword, and spoke this word:
‘The good king Hrothgar gave me this gift,
This battle-armor, and first to you
Bade tell the tale of his friendly favor.
He said King Heorogar, lord of the Scyldings,
Long had worn it, but had no wish
To leave the mail to his manful son,
The dauntless Heoroweard, dear though he was!
Well may you wear it! Have joy of it all.’
As I’ve heard the tale, he followed the trappings
With four bay horses, matched and swift,
Graciously granting possession of both,
The steeds and the wealth. ‘Tis the way of a kinsman,
Not weaving in secret the wiles of malice
Nor plotting the fall of a faithful friend.
To his kinsman Hygelac, hardy in war,
The heart of the nephew was trusty and true;
Dear to each was the other’s good!
To Hygd, as I’ve heard, he presented three horses
Gaily saddled, slender and sleek,
And the gleaming necklace Wealhtheow gave,
A peerless gift from a prince’s daughter.
With the gracious guerdon, the goodly jewel,
Her breast thereafter was well bedecked.
So the son of Ecgtheow bore himself bravely,
Known for his courage and courteous deeds,
Strove after honor, slew not his comrades
In drunken brawling; nor brutal his mood.
But the bountiful gifts which the Lord God gave him
He held with a power supreme among men.
He had long been scorned, when the sons of the Geats
Accounted him worthless; the Weder lord
Held him not high among heroes in hall.
Laggard they deemed him, slothful and slack.
But time brought solace for all ills!

Ruth P. M. Lehmann

Then he had brought inside      the boar’s head standard,
the high helmet for war,      hauberk of gray,
costly claymore,      and recounted his tale:
“This rich war-gear      Hrothgar gave me;
the keen commander      then requested me
to tell you truly      of his treasured gifts.
He said it had been carried      by King Heregar,
lord of Scyldings;      long he had owned it,
but he was loathe to leave      that linked corslet
to his own offspring,      able Hereward,
though a loyal son.      Luck attend it!”
I heard that four horses,      in fleetness alike,
matched dabbled bays      remained with the trappings.
Steeds and riches      he bestowed on the king.
So ought kin to do,      not kindle malice
by secret skill,      nor send to death
his close comrades.      He had kept the faith
with Hygelac his prince,      hardy in battle;
each with a careful regard      for his kin’s welfare:
So should a sister’s son      who sought his uncle.
I heard he tendered the torque,      the treasured marvel,
as a gift to Hygd,      given to him by Wealhtheow,
a prince’s daughter,      with a present of steeds,
high-stepping horses      with handsome saddles.
Then was her breast adorned      the better with the necklace.
Thus did Ecgtheow’s son      exemplify honor,
known for battles      and for noble deeds.
He behaved fairly,      harmed no drinkers,
killed no comrades.      His was no cruel heart:
a fearless fighter,      he kept in full the gift
that God had granted,      the greatest vigor
man could be given.      Many despised him;
young Geats thought him      a youth unready
nor would the chief choose him      for choice bounty
in the feasting hall.      Him they firmly believed
a passive prince,      unpromising,
a slothful soldier.      But a sudden change
from former affliction      came to that famous man.

James M. Garnett

He bade then bring in the boar’s-head-sign,
The battle-high helmet, the hoary burnie,
The war sword ornate, his word then uttered:
“This cuirass to me Hrothgar then gave,
The crafty chief, bade with some words
That I of its origin first should thee tell,
Said that it had Hiorogar king,
Prince of the Scyldings, for a long while:
Not to his son sooner would he it give,
To the brave Heoroweard, though to him he were dear,
The defence of his breast. Use thou it well!”
I heard that to the armor four horses too,
Exactly alike, in their tracks followed,
Yellow as apples: he to him gave possession
Of horses and jewels. So shall a friend do,
Not at all cunning snares weave for another,
With secret craft death for him prepare,
His hand-companion. To Hygelac was,
In battle brave, his nephew devoted.
And each to the other mindful of kindness.
I heard that the necklace he to Hygd gave,
The curious treasure which Wealhtheow gave him,
The prince’s daughter, three horses likewise,
Slender and saddle-bright: to her after was,
After the ring-giving, the breast adorned.
So bravely bore him Ecgtheow’s son,
The man famed in wars, by his good deeds,
He did after right, not at all slew the drunken
Hearth-companions: his mind was not cruel,
But he of mankind with greatest power,
The mighty gift, which God him gave,
The warlike one kept. Long he was despised,
As him the Geats’ children did not reckon good,
Nor him at the mead-bench as worthy of much
The lord of the people would then esteem;
They weened very strongly that he was slothful,
An unwarlike prince; a change after came
To the glory-blessed man of each of his sorrows.

Seamus Heaney

2152      Then he ordered the boar-framed standard to be brought,
the battle-topping helmet, the mail-shirt grey as hoar-frost
and the precious war-sword; and proceeded with his speech.
“When Hrothgar presented this war-gear to me
he instructed me, my lord, to give you some account
of why it signifies his special favour.
He said it had belonged to his older brother,
King Heorogar, who had long kept it,
2160      but that Heorogar had never bequeathed it
to his son Heoroweard, that worthy scion,
loyal as he was.
Enjoy it well.”
I heard four horses were handed over next.
Beowulf bestowed four bay steeds
to go with the armour, swift gallopers,
all alike. So ought a kinsman act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades. The warrior king
2170      was uncle to Beowulf and honoured by his nephew:
each was concerned for the other’s good.

I heard he presented Hygd with a gorget,
the priceless torque that the prince’s daughter,
Wealtheow, had given him; and three horses,
supple creatures, brilliantly saddled.
The bright necklace would be luminous on Hygd’s breast.

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
2180      a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.